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From Information Highways to Songlines of the Noosphere

Global configuration of hypertext pathways as a prerequisite for meaningful collective transformation (Part #1)

Subsequently published in Futures, 30, 1998, 2/3, pp 181-7

1. Metaphorical impoverishment ?
Challenge of comprehension
Grid systems and beyond
Knowledge representation for the future
Reflecting the nature of an overarching pattern: a pattern that connects
Keeping the grid "up"
Grasping for identity and the challenge of integrative knowledge
Imagination and aesthetics as vital resources
Spherical knowledge grid: discontinuity and emptiness
Sustaining aesthetics: songlines, leylines and dragon lines
Songlines of the noosphere
Globality of the noosphere

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1. Metaphorical impoverishment ?

Highway and Web: As a means of understanding and explaining the significance of the emerging information society, metaphor is currently highly favoured in many different contexts. Information "highway" seems to be preferred by those concerned with the development of the telecommunications infrastructure. The most conceptually revolutionary feature of the Internet is described as a world wide "web". Users are inclined to describe themselvses as "surfing" the net, or possibly "cruising" the information highway.

It is worth asking whether the dimensions of the information society will be adequately captured by such metaphors -- and whether there are not other metaphors essential to the comprehension of features which may be of greater significance to any desirable collective transformation of society. There is a danger that the mental habits associated with "highways" will simply be replicated in this new context without recognizing their limitations. Lacking understanding of their fundamental implications for society, it is worth remembering that automobiles were first referred to as "horseless carriages" -- and "wireless" was long used for radio.

In a study by Stephen Talbott, the question is raised: "Will the 'information highway' really bring us closer together, or will it perform the same function as asphalt highways, encouraging us to seek the promise of better things in the distance? Will the euphoria that now greets the Internet be replaced in 20 or 30 years with the dismay that now surrounds the once-bright promise of television?" (Talbott, p. xiv)

As with road construction, consortia are emerging which expect to make considerable profit from the development of the new highway. Given the questionable practices common in the state-supported construction industry, it would be regrettable if their application to the information society was facilitated for lack of more challenging metaphors. Similarly it is worth asking whether "surfing" and "cruising" adequately capture the full spectrum of ways of using the new facilities in a society in which there are repeated calls for paradigm shifts in the face of conceptual blandness, self-scattering and complacency. "Cruising" reflects little awareness of excessive resource utilization.

What is implied by "web" -- primarily associated with spiders -- concerning human ability to deal with complexity? Are there "spiders" on the Web -- and who or what might they be? Why are the behavioural characteristics of rodents seen as appropriate metaphors for a number of search tools on the Internet -- Gopher, Archie, Veronica (the last two being abbreviations in which the R stands for rodent)?

As a metaphor, highway tends to be used in its most simplistic form. Its richer implications would recognize the existence of a vast network of roadways, developed to different degrees on different continents. Some permit multi-lane traffic, and are characterized by complex junctions to avoid interrupting the flow. Others are single lane, unsurfaced, and infrequently travelled -- and may not be accessible to more sophisticated automated vehicles. Some "freeways" are subject to toll charges. Some are private or, when they cross frontiers, require a visa, for which a fee is usually charged, if appropriate criteria are fulfilled. Some roads are controlled by brigands and terrorists with a variety of intentions. Echoes of all these features are already evident on the "information highway", including the self-elected "highwayman" of the "Robin Hood" variety.

Navigating: More interesting is recognition of the challenge of getting around the information society. The metaphor of "navigating" is frequently used -- especially in relationship to the daunting task of navigating complexity. This reflects a broadening of understanding of the vehicle in which users may be travelling (Benking) -- with at least the implication that complexity may not be characterized by a fixed and intricate network of highways (a "World Wide Cobweb"), but rather may be experienced like the challenges of navigating uncharted seas and outer space, where reference points are not as unambiguous as signposts on roads. But the ability to acquire a product defined as a "navigator" tool, such as the justly famed Web browser, Netscape Navigator, can easily reinforce the illusion that the challenge of navigating conceptual complexity is relatively trivial.nforce the illusion that the challenge of navigating conceptual complexity is relatively trivial.

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